Hard Drives by Application: Which Is Best for You?

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When it comes time to build a computer, populate a RAID or NAS array, replace a corrupted drive, or expand your system’s current storage capacity, the sheer quantity of drive options can be daunting. I’m not just talking about storage capacity, but also form factor, interface, and more. While you could just haphazardly buy something and hope for the best, there are certain drives that are better suited for specific purposes. Will your home system need a drive with enterprise or data center features? Probably not, and at the same time, you wouldn’t want to use a drive that isn’t optimized for 24/7 use in an array that is going to be operating more often than not.

Form Factor – 3.5", 2.5", and M.2

Before buying anything, familiarize yourself with the form factor(s) and interface(s) that your system supports. The most common form factors are 3.5", 2.5", and M.2. 3.5" drives offer the largest storage capacities, but are physically big, generate a lot of heat, and are only available as a spinning hard drive, as compared to a flash-based solid-state drive. Solid-state drives are faster than hard drives since they have no mechanical parts, and 2.5" drives are available as both solid-state drives and hard drives. The smaller form factor of 2.5" doesn’t allow for the larger storage capacities of 3.5", although they do generate less heat. 2.5" drives are also available with heights of 7mm, 9.5mm, 12.5mm, and 15mm, so be sure to also check the maximum height your 2.5" bay can accept, but most 2.5" drive bays are generally 7mm or 9.5mm. M.2 drives are only available as solid-state storage in form factors of 2242 (42mm), 2260 (60mm) 2280 (80mm), and 22110 (110mm), so be sure to check your system’s M.2 slot compatibility. Physically, M.2 drives are the smallest and generate the least amount of heat.

Interface – SATA and PCIe

3.5" and 2.5" hard drives and solid-state drives typically use the SATA interface, while M.2 drives are built with both PCIe and SATA compatibility. Whether your M.2 SSD uses SATA or PCIe will depend on the specs of your host system, but PCIe offers faster read and write speeds than SATA.

Now that we’ve covered form factors and interfaces, here are some suggested drives for specific purposes, whether it be general use, design, photo/video, gaming, and more.

Casual PC Users

Casual users and those engaging in internet browsing, email, non-intensive gaming, and other general tasks such as adding pictures, videos, and clip art to a Power Point presentation, calculating complex cell formulas in Excel, and creating eye-catching flyers and other documents in Word will appreciate the WD Blue lineup. Available as a 2.5" hard drive or a 3.5" hard drive, WD Blue drives combine large capacities and low noise levels with an affordable cost-to-performance ratio.

WD’s Green series has mostly been merged with the Blue lineup and serves similar purposes, although a 240GB SATA III 2.5" SSD is still available. When compared to WD’s Blue drives, the Green series are quieter and uses less power. Both WD Blue and Green are suitable for everyday computing and mainstream uses, along with some non-intensive gaming.

WD 240GB Green SATA III 2.5" Internal SSD

Gamers

Gaming enthusiasts would be wise to look in WD’s Black lineup, which offer larger capacities and faster throughputs at solid cost per gigabyte ratio. WD Black drives are available as a 3.5" hard drive, a 2.5" hard drive, or an NVMe PCIe M.2 SSD either with or without a heatsink. The SSD would offer the best performance of the WD Blacks, and so long as your gaming rig has an appropriate processor and graphics card, graphics-intensive games such as Battlefield V will run without incident.

A comparable drive from Seagate would be their FireCuda lineup, a hybrid drive that combines the larger capacity of a hard drive with an SSD cache for faster performance. FireCudas are available with either a 3.5" or 2.5" form factor, and if you’d prefer a straight-up Seagate hard drive, their BarraCuda drives are available for 3.5" and 2.5" drive bays, and the BarraCuda Pro is available for 3.5" bays in capacities up to 14TB. Barracuda Pro drives feature faster data transfer speeds and are built to be more durable for greater usage.

Seagate BarraCuda Pro 7200 rpm SATA III 3.5" Internal HDD

Games these days are getting larger and larger, so if you’re someone who plays a lot of different titles, hard drives may be a good choice for general storage, while games played more frequently, or games you want loaded faster, can be kept on an SSD. Additionally, in single player games, where you have to wait for loading screens, a faster drive can help speed things up. This differs from multiplayer games, where everyone needs to finish loading before the game starts, so you won’t have to worry about speed as much, since you’re basically waiting on the slowest player regardless.

If you’re running a game that is less demanding, then you won’t have to worry about whether to use a hard drive, solid-state hybrid drive, or solid-state drive for your rig. There’s also no reason that any of these drives aren’t suitable for casual PC users running more general tasks.

Photo & Video Enthusiasts / Power Users

People working with photo and video typically engage in bandwidth-intensive tasks and need a drive that can keep up. This includes complex tasks in Photoshop, such as multi-layer effects rendering, and working with one or more high-res digital photos or film scans, while video users running Final Cut or Resolve can find themselves working with Full HD, 4K, 8K, 3D, HFR (high frame rate), and HDR (high dynamic range) video, all of which can eat up a great amount of bandwidth, especially once effects and color grading are applied. The best choice here is an M.2 NVMe PCIe SSD, such as the Samsung 970 PRO, 970 EVO, 960 EVO, and 960 PRO. All of these SSDs have a form factor of M.2 2280.

Samsung 970 PRO NVMe M.2 Internal SSD

If your system only supports M.2 SATA, then a solid choice is the Samsung 860 EVO, which has an M.2 2280 form factor. If you need a 2.5" SATA SSD, the 860 EVO is also available as a 2.5" / 7mm SSD in capacities up to 4TB. If you need M.2 SATA SSDs with other form factors, Transcend offers the MTS400S (2242) and MTS600 (2260).

Transcend MTS600 SATA III M.2 Internal SSD

If your primary concern is speed, then you’ll want an M.2 NVMe PCIe drive, regardless of the application.

Data Storage / Redundancy / Archiving

Are you looking for a durable drive for your NAS or RAID array? WD’s Red Series is available as a 3.5" and 2.5" hard drives. Red drives are best for NAS environments with up to 8 bays, while the 3.5" Red Pro hard drives are for 16-bay arrays. Seagate’s equivalents are the 3.5" IronWolf and IronWolf Pro drives. If you need maximum capacity, there is a 14TB variant of the IronWolf. All of these are built with high levels of reliability, low failure rates, and error recovery, making them an intelligent choice for applications other than NAS and RAID environments. They can be used for general tasks, although I wouldn’t use any NAS drive with less than 7200 rpm for anything intensive, such as gaming, photo, or video work. All in all, will your system be powered on more often than not? If so, a NAS drive is a worthy choice, even if it’s being installed on a single bay desktop/notebook or enclosure.

Seagate 14TB IronWolf 7200 rpm SATA III 3.5" Internal NAS HDD

Surveillance Systems

Do you engage in surveillance? If so, WD’s Purple drives are made for 24/7 use with firmware and caching algorithms for write-intensive applications. Seagate’s SkyHawk drives are similar, and also suitable for surveillance, as well as data center use, are WD’s Gold drives. All these drives have a 3.5" form factor. Given their high durability, WD Red drives could also be used for surveillance.

WD 6TB Purple 5400 rpm SATA III 3.5" Internal Surveillance Hard Drive

So, there you have it. Whether you’re a storage newbie or a seasoned veteran, this guide will help you select the proper drive for specific applications that matches the form factor and interface of your host system.

Do you have preferred drives for the above-mentioned uses? Feel free to share your comments below.

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